When Katsuhito Ishii (Smuggler, My Darling Of The Mountains) and Takeshi Koike (Redline) get together (Party 7, Cha no Aji), very nice things are bound to happen. Back in 2003 the two of them teamed up to produce an original animation series. While things didn't go as planned and the series was never realized, the pilot survived and made it on its own accord, living on as a sad but near-perfect relic of what could have been.
Looking at the pile of Japanese films and series that pass us by each year, it's nothing short of a miracle that Trava: Fist Planet made it onto DVD, English subtitles included (Japanese import though, so it's expensive). Of course Koike and Ishii were lucky enough to get backing from the Grasshoppa production house, a DVD-magazine that for some reason provided English subtitles with all its releases, still it's one of the most valued and treasured DVDs of my collection.
It's not just the production background of the pilot that makes this such a rarity though. The crux of Trava is a close derivative of a style of comedy that is pretty unique to Japan (manzai). Takeshi Kitano is probably the most famous manzai representative (as part of the Two Beat duo), yet even his work never made it to West. The cultural and verbal barrier is just too big a gap to bridge. Trava features a very similar sense of humor, relying on constant, deadpan banter between its two main protagonists in order to amuse the audience. If you're not used to it, it might come off as pretty awkward in the beginning (both pacing and delivery are very different from what we know), but I must say I warmed up to it pretty quickly.
Trava: Fist Planet follows Trava and Shinkai on their way to the Fist Planet tournament. To enter the tournament they first have to take on some odd jobs as the entrance money is quite steep. On their way to mark a planet they run into a leftover pod from the war. To their surprise the person inside the pod is still alive. When she wakes up she can't remember who she is or where she came from, so Trava and Shinkai decide to take her along on their trip.
From a visual point of view this is 100% Koike's work. His style is instantly recognizable, an insane mix of unique character designs and emotive deformations. His characters often look odd and even slightly off, but these "imperfections" always seem to communicate a certain state of mind. The animation isn't fluid but the direction is absolutely perfect. Radical, vibrant and overstated, Trava curls and twists like an animator's nightmare. The pilot was made in 4:3, which is a small downer (though it's not as bad as with live-action films) and the color scheme could've used a bit more variation, but these are just minor annoyances compared to the visual delight that whirls across the screen.
The soundtrack is pretty decent, although it could've done with slightly better music direction. If you compare this to Koji Morimoto's work (which I think, soundtrack-wise, could be put in the same category) you'll quickly notice that Ishii doesn't make good use of the strengths of the music. The score is quite varied and the right tracks are underneath the right scenes, but still there is a small miss-match between what you see and what you hear. Voice acting on the other hand is absolutely amazing. The delivery, the timing and the ad-libs are all spot on, crafting the characters into a very likable bunch.
Trava: Fist Planet is little more than a pilot, so don't expect to find a fully-fledged universe. It's clear that Koike and Ishii had plenty more planned for our unfortunate duo, instead Trava and Shinkai just manage to survive the first episode arc, leaving the main arc wide open (although they would get a small cameo in Koike's Redline a few years later). But even then I feel the pilot functions well enough on its own.
I used to compare Trava: Fist Planet to Dead Leaves, nowadays I'm not sure if that's a fair comparison. It definitely belongs in the same corner as Dead Leaves (and Heruzu Enjueruzu for that matter), but the pacing and sense of humor make it a very different experience. The combination of manic animation and dry, deadpan conversations is no doubt an acquired taste, still there is plenty to enjoy if you have a soft spot for animation. Koike and Ishii make a great team, so even though the DVD might be a little hard to track down it's absolutely worth the trouble.